'My UK master's helped me become a New York Times bestselling author'

Portrait of Abi wearing an orange and black headscarf, orange earrings. She has make-up on and smiles softly at the camera with her hand gently grazing her cheek

Abi Daré, author of 'The Girl with the Louding Voice'

Abi Daré is a UK graduate and author of the New York Times Bestseller, ‘The Girl with the Louding Voice’. Hear how doing her master’s in creative writing at Birkbeck College, University of London helped her go on to huge success as a writer and the power of nursing a hope, no matter how tiny.

Since I was a child, I have always told stories

I grew up in a neighbourhood full of families where there were loads of kids. We always went out to play and when we got tired of running around, I would gather everyone together and tell them - or sing them - stories. There was one song I used to sing about an old, one-eyed woman who went around killing children. I would act like her, chasing the other kids while tilting my walk. Everyone got so excited and my stories were always well-received.

Two people sit on a call on the edge of the Thames as the sun sets behind the shard. You can see Tower bridge in the background.

'When I moved to the UK, I wrote a blog about my experiences'

When I moved to the UK, I started publishing my writing

When I moved from Nigeria to the UK, I was compelled to write a blog documenting my experiences as a Nigerian woman living, studying and working in the UK, not thinking much of it. Through my writing, I tried to capture what challenged, interested and inspired me - always with a humorous twist.

Abi standing to the left of the frame in a yellow jumper. She is facing the camera but her body is side-on. She's holding a computer and a phone and smiling.

'Through my writing, I tried to capture what challenged, intereested and inspired me'

Beyond making people laugh, I used my blog as a platform to educate them

While working at a high-value jewellery store in the UK, customers were regularly surprised by ‘how well I spoke English’. What they did not know was that English is my first language. It was all I knew growing up. My mum even sent me to live with my grandmother for a while so that I could learn to speak my mother tongue, Yoruba. In my blog, beyond making people laugh, I wanted to educate them and address common misconceptions that they might have about my culture.

The success of my blog was proof that my writing was engaging

Although I started small, my blog quickly grew in popularity - so much so that it was even discussed on the radio in Lagos. It was a surprise, but it also proved that my writing was engaging. It was a blessing and a curse. I didn’t want so many people to have such an intimate knowledge of my personal life, and my writing was attached to who I was as an individual. Despite my friends advising against it, I deleted it and moved on to other forms of self-expression.

Busy underground train in London.

'I didn't want so many people to have such an intimate knowledge of my personal life'

I hadn't realised that a UK education could help me improve my prospects as a writer

In 2016, I undertook a master’s degree in creative writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. It was the first time I funded my education and was completely invested financially and emotionally. At this point, I had already studied in the UK. My undergraduate was in law and my master's was in international project management. These courses both fitted in with my very fixed idea that the purpose of going to university was to secure a long and financially rewarding career.

I hadn’t realised until I was in the UK that university could be a place where I could formally encourage my creativity could help me improve my prospects as a writer. During my first years living here, I could express myself, push my boundaries and see possibilities for my career that I would never have considered.

There were about 10 of us in my class. All of them were good writers and many joined the course with existing writing careers. Some already had agents and had published novels. While others, like me, were newer to the profession, we all shared a degree of talent and a desire to do more with our writing.

Three male students in a classroom setting gathered around one computer.

'One of the best and hardest things about my course were the workshop sessions'

I learned to give and receive constructive, not destructive, feedback

One of the best and hardest things about my creative writing course were the workshop sessions. Every two weeks, we produced a 5000 word-piece based on a prompt - an object, a genre, an era - and then share it with the class for live feedback. We were told to critique each other constructively, not destructively. But it was still nerve-wracking.

I left my first session feeling like a horrible writer. I survived. Two weeks later, I was there again. And this process of writing and seeking regular feedback from my peers helped me to grow as a writer.

Every creator, at some point, thinks that what they have created is the best or the worst thing, depending on how they feel. Through sharing, you can learn what actually might not make sense to somebody outside of your head, for example. You might realise that what you produced isn’t ‘bad’, but it might not be clear enough what you’re trying to say. There’s always something you can do to make your work better.

My supervisors helped me work out how to tell the story I wanted to tell

During my creative writing master’s, I learned to think beyond what I know. My supervisors helped me to work out how to tell the story I wanted to tell. I already had an idea for a book before I started the course, and knew that I wanted to write it in two different voices. Both would be Nigerian - one would be a very educated, middle-class woman, and the other would be a young girl from a rural village who had lived a very different life. The first 3000 words I handed in were split between the voices of these two characters. My lecturer advised me that the story might be more powerful if written in only one voice. That’s what I did.

Photograph of 'The Girl with the Louding Voice' on display at Waterstones with a 'Signed by the author' sticker

The Girl with the Louding Voice on display at Waterstones

My novel is based on a story I've carried with me all my life

My novel, ‘The Girl with the Louding Voice’ is the story of Adunni, a 14-year-old girl growing up in rural Nigeria who longs to get an education so she can speak up for herself and free herself from her situation. It is about the power of fighting for your dreams in the face of many obstacles.

I wanted to tell the story of an intelligent, smart young girl with a beautiful spirit who refused to be silenced any longer - and who refused to be seen as a commodity. But also the story of a girl whose reality was so different from my own and who didn’t grow up in a middle-class family or benefit from all of the privileges that I did.

Two female students sit at a school desk writing notes by hand.

'Although access to education is a human right, over 100 million girls are out of school today'

I wrote the book in the voice of the semi-literate main character

I wrote the book in the voice of the main character, who is semi-literate, as I wanted it to sound as authentic as possible. And through her story, to challenge some cultural practices and norms that I believe need to be challenged. Although access to education is a human right, over 100 million girls are out of school today. I have had the opportunity to be educated, and I take it as a gift. I was one of those students who studied every night because I wanted to absorb and learn everything I was exposed to. I wanted to walk away knowing I had done the best with the opportunity I had been given. But also to know that I had contributed to challenging inequality.

Studying in the UK helped me work towards my dream of becoming a writer

I have had the opportunity to get a world-class education in the UK. I have been able to build my life in the best way possible. And, because I came here, I have been able to work towards my dream of becoming a writer. Just by being in the UK, I was able to pursue that dream and go on and get published and win awards, the first one being the Bath Novel Award 2018.

The Bath Novel Award is a global competition for unpublished authors. It is judged anonymously. I partly entered because I didn’t want anyone to know who I was or anything about me. I wanted my book to be judged on the story's merits alone. I won. That was the beginning of everything for me. It changed my life and gave me the chance to live the life I have always wanted to live.

'The Girl with the Louding Voice' became a New York Times Bestseller, was shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize for first-time novelists, and The Guardian listed me as one of 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2020.

Getting published is not just about how good of a writer you are

It’s important to remember that the journey of every writer is different. And, in terms of publishing, it’s not just about how good you are. There’s so much more to it - and we can’t control all of it. Sometimes we are writing the right story at the right time or getting it seen by a person who wants it out in the world. I trust and respect that and am humbled knowing that. Yes, I have published a novel that has won awards and been successful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a better writer than everybody else out there.

A screenshot of Abi reading out parts of her novel at Waterstones.

'It's important to remember the power of nursing a hope, no matter how tiny'

If you have a story to tell, tell it

Everyone’s dreams are valid. If you have a story to tell - whether through film, media, music, or whatever it is - just start telling it. While I was working on my novel, I had a full-time job, I was a wife and a mother, and my life didn’t stop for anything.

It’s important to remember the power of nursing a hope. Of holding onto it, even if it’s just a tiny flicker. And taking all of the small steps you need along the way to achieving what you’ve set your mind to. Never let that flicker of hope - however tiny - die.

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